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Apps, Why?

New smartphone app puts welfare assistance in the hands of Australia’s homeless

Picture a homeless person. Do they have a mobile phone? What about a smart phone? No? Then your mythical homeless person is just that – a myth. And it’s one that not-for-profit social justice organisation Infoxchange is trying hard to bust.

“Most people are surprised that 95 per cent of homeless people have mobile phones and 77 per cent have smartphones with access to free WiFi,” says Infoxchange CEO David Spriggs.

“Homelessness is such a complex issue and many Australians conceptualise it as an older man living on the street.

“The reality is it is a lot more diverse than this, with over 40 per cent of people experiencing homelessness under the age of 24 and using mobile phones as their life line to help, safety, and keeping in touch with family and friends.”

The statistics come from an August study on homelessness and mobile phone usage by the University of Sydney and the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN), which not only found that the rate of mobile phone ownership among Australia’s homeless was higher than many assumed, it was even higher than the general population – 92 per cent.

The study also found the majority of homeless Australians use social media, with 67 per cent saying they use their phone to use social networking sites, and 69 per cent using their phones to “access online information”.

These figures mean Infoxchange’s new homeless assistance app – the first of its kind and currently under development – could be a game-changer when it comes to social inclusion.

“The app uses web and smartphone technology to help people experiencing homelessness find available food, shelter, health and other social support services near them,” Mr Spriggs explains.

“It can also be used by community sector staff to help their clients on the ground.”

The app runs off Infoxchange’s already existing crisis accommodation database, which since its launch in 1989 has been constantly updated with real-time information to help social workers find beds for clients. It also takes in information from Infoxchange’s other online applications, which includes a directory with over 300,000 health, welfare and community services.

The app is being developed as a part of the 2014 Australian Google Impact Challenge, which invites non-profit organisations to develop technological solutions to social problems, the app will put this information at the fingertips of those in need for the first time.

“We saw the Google Impact Challenge as a way to… put this information directly into the hands of homeless people, rather than them having to rely on support from workers in the sector,” Mr Spriggs says.

“On any given night in Australia there are 1 in 200 people who are homeless and by developing the assist app we are expecting to help an estimated 100,000 people over two years.”

Infoxchange is now one of 10 finalists vying for one of four $500,000 prizes in the Google Impact Challenge, to be awarded on October 14.

“Studies show that the earlier you connect people to the support they need the more likely they’ll be able to break the cycle of homelessness themselves,” Mr Spriggs says.

“And that’s what we really care about, impacting homelessness and changing the lives of 100,000 Australians.”

You can view all the Google Impact Challenge finalists and vote for your favourite here.

About the author

A former web designer turned journalist, Petra has 10 years’ experience in digital media having worked as the online editor of South Australia’s Sunday Mail and as the national social media and technology reporter for News Corp Australia. As iPad editor for The Advertiser, she also oversaw the launch of the masthead’s first iPad app in 2010. Her work has been published in Elle Australia, Cosmopolitan, The Daily Telegraph, Herald Sun, Courier Mail, The Advertiser, Sunday Mail and The Vine.

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